Part of Vonnegut’s legacy, Cat’s Cradle, also earned him master’s
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (A.M.’71), who once called his time at the University “the most stimulating years of my life,” died Wednesday, April 11, in Manhattan. Vonnegut had suffered brain injuries from a fall in his home several weeks before. He was 84.
Vonnegut, whose best-selling novels Jailbird, Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle made him one of the most influential American novelists of the 20th century, was a graduate student in Anthropology from 1945 to 1947, after serving in World War II.
Vonnegut left Chicago after his Master’s thesis, “The Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tasks,” was rejected, and he decided to take a job in public relations. Years later, the University accepted Cat’s Cradle as Vonnegut’s thesis, awarding him an A.M. in 1971.
In a 1973 interview, Vonnegut was quoted as saying, “This was not an honorary degree but an earned one, given on the basis of what the faculty committee called the anthropological value of my novels. I snapped it up most cheerfully and I continue to have nothing but friendly feelings for the University.”
Vonnegut returned to Chicago several times in the following decades, including a visit to Mandel Hall in 1997, when he announced that his latest novel, Timequake, would be his last.
In a Chicago Sun-Times article published that same week, Vonnegut was quoted as saying: “I’m almost 75! Enough! I’ve been allowed to say everything I ever wanted to say. There is nothing else bottled up inside of me.”
Timequake was in fact his final novel. In 2005, he published his last book, A Man Without a Country, a best-selling collection of biographical essays.
While Vonnegut also wrote and published plays, essays and short stories, it was his 14 novels that made him a literary icon. Perhaps his most renowned is the antiwar novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which is based on Vonnegut’s time as a prisoner of war 25 years earlier and the firebombing of Dresden, Germany—which The New York Times called “the defining moment of Mr. Vonnegut’s life.”
In a 2003 National Public Radio interview, Vonnegut described his long journey in writing Slaughterhouse-Five. “You can’t remember pure nonsense. It was pure nonsense, the pointless destruction of that city, and, well, I just couldn’t get it right . . . I kept writing crap, as they say,” he said.
Of the long-awaited completion of Slaughterhouse-Five during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Vonnegut said in the interview, “I think it had not only freed me, I think it freed writers. Because the Vietnam War made our leadership and our motives so scruffy and essentially stupid, that we could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know the truth can be really powerful stuff.”
Although many schools initially banned Slaughterhouse-Five due to the graphic violence, language and sexual content, the book is now a staple in high school and college curriculums around the country.
A testament to the great influence Vonnegut had on the times, the phrase “so it goes,” used throughout many of his books, including Slaughterhouse-Five, was adopted as a motto or catch phrase by opponents of the Vietnam War.
Fellow novelist John Irving, who studied writing under Vonnegut, recalled in an NPR interview, “The only critical thing he ever said to me . . . was about my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt himself despised. He called them hermaphrodites.”
Black humor was evident not only in Vonnegut’s novels but also in his own personal perspectives on life. He once was quoted referring to his longtime smoking addiction as a “fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.”
Although, when talking to NPR in 2005 about how music helped him deal with the tragedies in his life, including the suicide of his mother and the untimely death of his beloved sister, he set aside the humor.
“Why this is so, I don’t know. Or what music is, I don’t know. But it helps me so. During the Great Depression in Indianapolis, when I was in high school, I would go to jazz joints and listen to black guys playing, and man, they could really do it. And I was really teared up. Still the case now.”
Echoing that sentiment, Vonnegut wrote in his final collection of essays, “If I should ever die, God forbid, let that be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.’”
Vonnegut’s wife, author-photographer, Jill Krementz, and his seven children survive him.